Finding their space

Print More
Carramiñana

Carramiñana

To get a different perspective from our survey, Catalyst interviewed several African-American and Latino faculty and staff at area colleges and universities. They cited the well-known problems, such as coming up with enough money and overcoming academic deficits, but they also stressed the difficulties of “fitting in” to the college culture, especially at predominantly white institutions. Here is a sample of their observations.

Rodrigo Carramiñana: University of Illinois at Chicago

Director, Latino Cultural Center, math professor

“I think the first thing [Latino students] face is they don’t know how to network. … They don’t check information or use the resources of the university. They have a friend, a brother of a friend, a friend of a friend, and if the person says ‘Don’t take this class,’ they don’t take it. They don’t check information [and] it affects the sequences of their coursework. … They rely on the advice of a student instead of a professional.

“Most of UIC’s students work more than 20 hours a week, [but] what makes a difference with Latino students is the responsibility they have at home. They’ll say, ‘Professor, I can’t come to class, I have to take my mom to the doctor and she doesn’t speak English.’ Or, ‘I have to watch my little brother or sister.’ Most Latino students [here] live at home, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that family structure.”

Ayana Karanja: Loyola University

Director, Black World Studies Department, anthropology professor

“If they have attended a CPS high school, there’s a good chance they have an academic deficiency. Not a deficiency in intelligence, but we know Chicago Public Schools need to do a lot more. … We have bright students, but they have not been prepared academically to compete with students from the best high schools.

“It’s the social world that’s the most challenging, until they can actually ‘find their space’ at Loyola. … That means they strike some kind of balance in how they relate to faculty at a place where there are few black faculty, and their total environment may be foreign [because it is majority-white]. In that sense, I have some students who feel lost, who don’t know what steps to take to be successful.

“Unfortunately, there have been major cutbacks in financial-aid packages, and so unless a student is able to get a work-study job and work fewer hours, it’s a problem. If they have to go off-campus with a serious job, they’re going to be greatly challenged to succeed in school.”

Elizabeth Lozano: Loyola University

Associate professor of communications

“With first- or second-generation [immigrant] students, many of them are the first to go to college. That is an issue because they come to the university with the weight of doing something very different from what their parents did. Very often they have to teach their parents what it means to be in college. Their parents may be very willing [to help them], but don’t know a lot about school. We need a lot of mentorship for these students because many of them do not benefit from, ‘Oh yes, when I was in college…’ because their parents didn’t go.

“What makes a huge difference with students’ success is making a community for them. That is a task that needs to be addressed, acknowledging their background, creating cultural events. That is what we try to do through [our] student organization, multicultural affairs. … Another element that is crucial is to see people like them in positions of power. One of the things that helps morale is to see oneself represented.

“Most of my Latino students try to keep a low profile. … For many reasons, some cultural, they don’t feel inclined to speak up in class. I think it has to do with being raised in families that often face humiliation as recent immigrants.”

Ana Vázquez: DePaul University

Director, Multicultural Student Affairs

“The transition from a high school environment to college, [and] coming to a predominantly white institution, can be hard. Part of that transition is determining whether they belong here, determining a sense of community. …They could be doing straight ‘A’ work, but if they think people don’t want them somewhere, they’re not going to do well, or they’re going to leave. …When you don’t have a support system, or network at home, don’t know many people like you who’ve gone through this experience … there may be a sense of isolation.

“Many students tend to struggle with math and science classes. …We’ve noticed also an avoidance, where students are delaying taking those courses, which only makes the situation more difficult. The tutoring that we offer this year [through the STARS program for minority students] is specifically focusing on these efforts.

“Many students work, often beyond just one job. They’re being pulled in so many directions, from having family obligations to assisting with their tuition. … That impacts their grades when they’re spread so thin, [from] being up late because of a job, [then] having to get up early to go to class.”

Andre Phillips: University of Chicago

Director, Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP

“What we find we need to spend time on is how to think—to get these kids to think about the world in a more challenging way. … This is a challenge for students of color. Students tell us, ‘I read this book. Why do I have to read it again?’ We say ‘Yes, you may have read this book. But did you take a critical look at what you’ve read? That’s what we want you do to.’ … This is why it was important to create the CAAP program, to help students see they are playing in a new league, that they will have reached another point in college. Some had never really been challenged.

“The specter of spending this kind of money [at the U of C] in one school year is pretty daunting. Some kids look at the price tag and never look forward, never apply. This is unfortunate. … We provide significant assistance financially, but some students never find that out.

“Being in an environment as diverse as U of C [can be an obstacle for minorities]. For African-American students, in particular, the numbers here are not as representative as we would like. Students look around and don’t find as many students like them. … They are suddenly in an environment where they are the only African American in a college house or in a class. …Then you figure in the rigorous academic component. They have to retain confidence that they belong. Once they embrace the sense of belonging, then they can participate on equal footing.”

Sharon Wilson-Taylor: Columbia College Chicago

Dean of Students

“I’ve found that many minority students [experience] a cultural change. Many of them have gone to all-black or Latino schools, and then they come to college where there are white professors and a mix of other kids. Many of them are not used to working with a group, and at Columbia, there are a lot of group projects. All this is new.

“They also don’t understand that colleges have cultures. For instance, you are expected to take the initiative; no one will come to you. If you need tutoring, you have to seek it out. If you want to participate in a club, you have to go to the club. We have the resources here, but students have to seek them out.

“Students also have personal obstacles, like they can’t study at home [or] they commute back and forth from home to school, which takes up study time. Mom and Dad don’t have college experience, so they don’t know their kids need to study, or that after their child gets out of class, they are still on campus for several more hours because their child needs to go to the library.”